On Tuesday of this week, the U.S. and India signed a major defense pact that strengthens the existing military cooperation between the two countries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper met in New Delhi with Indian counterparts, S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister, and Rajnath Singh, Defense Minister.
In Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Pompeo warned of a predatory China.
The pact leverages an existing logistics protocol signed in 2016 that provides for mutual use of naval bases and shared encryption platforms for intelligence purposes. While details of this pact are understandably limited, its purpose is the sharing of classified satellite information, and it gives India access to data needed in the targeting of missiles and armed unmanned aerial vehicles, and it permits installation of sophisticated avionics on aircraft sold to India by the United States.
As expected, in characterizing this pact, India may assert a doctrine of independence in world affairs, professing that the U.S. is a partner for a selected strategic purpose, with its other major alliances similarly on an as-needed basis.
India must state this, since another major partner of India continues to be Russia. For the five years ended in 2018, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute advises that Russia’s share of India’s weapons importation declined 42 percent from the previous five-year period. While Russia is still the source of almost 60 percent of India’s imported weaponry, in recent years the U.S., France, and Israel have gained market share.
What is stunning about this pact is the wide support for it by Indian media and in the court of public opinion, and the blunt statement of Secretary Pompeo that the U.S. will support India’s sovereignty. The context was the clash in June in the remote region of Ladakh, a part of Kashmir, in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat. Further, Pompeo singled out the Chinese Communist Party as opposed to “democracy, the rule of law, transparency … and freedom of navigation.” China’s menacing tactics toward India have been widely believed to be a warning, in view of India’s tilt toward the United States. But its bellicose actions are actually serving to bring the U.S. and India closer in cooperation, based upon mutual need.
This defense pact certainly ups the ante in efforts by the U.S. to contain China, which has become increasingly aggressive in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean region. Some of the efforts of Pompeo and Esper were also directed at undermining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which embraces about 70 countries for development of ports, electric power installations, airports, and other infrastructure — with rules for trade and investment dictated by Beijing. India is not a party to this initiative, which stretches from mainland China to Africa and parts of Europe.
In particular, China’s so-called string of pearls includes maritime facilities in nations of the Indian Ocean region such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The fear is that that these may have dual use in time of conflict — as well as the power to intimidate. In Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Pompeo warned of a predatory China — Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have already seen the consequences of China’s so-called debt trap.
While defense is a major area of collaboration between the U.S. and India, Pompeo outlined other fields such as counterterrorism, freedom of the seas, assuring integrity of 5G networks, trade and investment, and clean energy. To this list, and as I have written in these pages, one should add efforts to develop the electronic battlefield of the future, in view of India’s digital prowess and commitment to space, as well as projects to increase India’s agricultural yields to boost farm income.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago in international banking. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago.